Harper Promise free tuition program faces changes to keep it sustainable
With more and more students signing up for Harper College's Promise Scholarship, the program that guarantees free tuition for good grades, attendance and community service is slowly becoming financially unsustainable, college officials say.
It's a reality that has led them to consider tweaks to the program now, and perhaps an overhaul later.
In the short term, the college's board next month will vote on an advisory committee's recommendation to include Advanced Placement and dual credit courses taken in high school in the amount of credit hours the college will pay for. The change would apply to high schoolers at three Harper sender districts beginning with the graduating classes of 2025 -- current eighth-graders whom Harper officials already plan to start recruiting in January.
It wouldn't mean students need to arrive at Harper's Palatine campus with college credits, nor would there be any changes to the existing list of requirements to get the tuition-free scholarship.
Established in 2015 under then-President Ken Ender, the program awards two years of tuition to students from Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Barrington Area Unit District 220 who maintain solid grades, have good attendance, don't repeat classes, graduate on time and provide service in their communities.
The proposed credit hour change, plus a one-time board contribution of $1.4 million, would make the Promise program whole for the next decade, officials said. There's about $20 million in the fund now, and it costs at least $1 million in tuition for each year's class -- a number that's expected to grow with the increase in demand.
What's less clear is what exactly the Promise program would look like after 2030, or if a sister program might be developed.
Early discussions from a board committee-of-the-whole meeting last week included the possibility of making the scholarship need-based. It's now open to anyone regardless of income.
Board members of the Harper College Educational Foundation, which raises funds from the private sector for the Promise program, will consider a new scholarship campaign at meetings starting next month, according to Harper President Avis Proctor.
But implementing a change to the Promise eligibility criteria now would be seen as shock to the community and donors, Proctor said.
Added Michelé Smith, the college's vice president of workforce solutions who oversees Promise: "There was a commitment that the program would look a certain way. So when we talk about substantial changes -- (like) making it need-based only -- we have donor commitments that were around a very different model."
Any changes to the program wouldn't take effect until the Class of 2029 arrives on campus, Smith said.
Last fall, 421 high school graduates came to Harper with the guarantee of free tuition, so long as they continue to meet similar criteria on grades, persistence and community service. Harper welcomed 480 Promise scholars -- most of them virtual -- this year.
Those numbers will likely continue to grow, school officials say, and eventually, they hope to be able to support as many as 1,000 students in the program.